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Views Vs. Vultures: Will Opposition to Safer Power Lines Endanger Condors?

California Condor at Big Sur | Photo: Ted Drake/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In June, an endangered California Condor became the fifth to die by electrocution after landing on a power line along the Big Sur coast. Now, the Ventana Wildlife Society, which heads up the Monterey County condor recovery project, has asked Pacific Gas and Electric to replace local power lines with safer, insulated "tree wire." But locals are objecting, saying the heavier electrical conduits will detract from their views.

Condor #306, whose body was discovered in June on Partington Ridge, was a ten-year-old female who successfully reared a chick last year. A forensics examination by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that she'd died of electrocution.

Some locals opposed to replacing power lines with heavier tree wire say they care very much about the plight of the condors, but maintain that undergrounding utilities is the best answer to both wildlife safety and preserving views.

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The heavier-gauge conduits that the Ventana Wildlife Society is asking PG&E to put up in condor country is called "tree wire" due to its main use, in areas where the possibility of falling tree limbs make sturdier cabling a good idea. But the wire is noticeably thicker, making it more prominent visually. And local residents concerned about the increased visual intrusion on the coastal viewshed have gained support from the staff of the California Coastal Commission, which says the rewiring should require a coastal development permit.

On a petition supporting undergrounding Big Sur's local power lines sponsored by the local group Pelican Network, local resident Kevin Collins put the anti-tree-wire case succinctly:

Overhead power, phone and data lines cause major harm to wildlife and water quality because of continuous tree cutting, vegetation removal and stream bank erosion and due to bird strikes and use of herbicides and wood preservatives. It is absurd not to improve these antique public systems by putting them in safe underground conduits.

The problem, Ventana Wildlife Society's Kelly Sorenson told the Monterey County Weekly, is that undergrounding could take between 10 and 30 years, while replacing the wires could begin immediately. He's urging neighbors to support tree wire as an interim step to undergrounding.

It looks as though undergrounding may well happen, given recent support for the idea by the Big Sur Multi-Agency Advisory Council, which has agreed to consider the idea at an upcoming meeting, with approval from its chair representative Sam Farr. And undergrounding is certainly the sensible long-term solution to condor safety, given that collisions with power lines are themselves a serious threat to the birds.

"Pelican Network and Big Sur community have strongly supported condor reintroduction," an unnamed Pelican Network spokesperson said in a note in a Network email newsletter. "And for the program to be successful, we believe strongly it must be a good neighbor. To save condors and create good will with neighbors, undergrounding is necessary."

The unanswered question: can it be done before the next condor gets fried?

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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